Betty Wright, in the tradition of all great singers, is a true soul survivor. Even if you know nothing of her past, you can hear it in her delivery, see it in her lyrics, and feel in her vocal tone that she’s lived life to the full – both good and bad.
Wright is also one of soul music’s sassiest singers (second, perhaps, only to her kindred spirit, Millie Jackson), and helped define a genre with her often cautionary tales of infidelity, of being “the other woman,” and the consequences of temptation. If Billy Paul had a woman in mind when he sang “Me & Mrs Jones,” chances are it could well have been Betty Wright!
Wright scored her first top 10 hit when only 18, back in 1971 with the rare groove favourite “Clean Up Woman,” and that strong-woman philosophy has remained a hallmark of her work to this day. Three years later she received a Grammy Award for the song "Where Is the Love?" (not to be confused with the renowned Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway tune of the same name).
Her fiery “If You Love Me Like You Say You Love Me” was a defining proto-disco recording, while “Baby Sitter” was another cautionary tale in the vein of “Clean Up Woman,” that would become a stable of her subsequent recordings. From her sexual awaking on (“Tonight Is The Night”), to her emotive odes to love’s trials and tribulations on the themed series of singles - “Pain,” “No Pain, No Gain,” “After The Pain,” and “From Pain To Joy” in the 1980s and ‘90s - Wright’s southern soul influenced work has defined our lives almost as much as her own.
In recent times she’s helped guide the careers of the next generation of soul stars, co-producing Joss Stone’s first two albums, THE SOUL SESSIONS and MIND, BODY & SOUL, the latter which won a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Album in 2005. In 2006, Wright was handpicked by Sean Combs to be the vocal coach for the hit TV show Making the Band, and a year later the Angie Stone duet, “Baby,” earned another Grammy nomination, as did Lil Wayne’s triple-platinum selling THA CARTER III opus, which Wright co-wrote, produced, and sang on. And, as recently as 2010, her single "Go!" received a Grammy nod for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.
The sort of singer that both young artists and old want to work with (she’s now a highly sought producer, writer, arranger, and vocal coach), her pairing with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots is a dream move that’s mutually beneficial to both. Whether you spell it with a capital “Q” or a question mark, ?uestlove is the coolest man to wear an afro puff since a youthful Michael Jackson in the 1970s. Best known as the drummer of the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots, Questlove can be seen most nights jamming the beats on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night TV talk show in the US. In his down time he has produced for such seminal artists as Common, Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and most recently Al Green and John Legend. Add to the list Betty Wright and her sublime return to the charts with BETTY WRIGHT: THE MOVIE.
Wright, affectionately known to friends and family as “Ms. B,” reflects on the album’s title: “I am more griot than singer. You can usually see what I say.” She continues, “I decided that each song would be a vision that you could take to the screen … 14 songs equal 14 movies.” The album kicks off with “Old Songs,” a sentimental paean to classic soul that name checks some of Ms. B’s faves, both old and new, set to a toe-tapping n’ bumping riff. A vibrant and varied group of guests accompanies Wright, including fellow members of hip-hop neo soul trailblazers The Roots. Tower Of Power’s Lenny Williams duets with Wright on the plaintive midtempo number “Baby Come Back,” while a formidable trio of rappers, Lil Wayne (on “Grapes On A Vine” with the wonderfully profound hook-- “grapes on the vine don’t always make sweet wine” ), Snoop Dogg (“Real Woman”), and Robert ‘The Messenger’ Bozeman (“Hollywould”), all contribute verses to the album.
The slick funk jam, “In The Middle Of The Game (Don’t Change The Play)” finds Wright again offering marital advice on how to keep your man both happy and from wandering eyes and hands; “Tonight Again” revisits the “Juicy Fruit” vibe with equally seductive lyrics to match the tempos. Wright’s protégée and soul prodigy Joss Stone joins her in a soulful call and response on “Whisper In The Wind,” and you’d be hard pressed to tell the singers apart. “So Long, So Wrong” is a glorious ‘70s pastiche of Detroit soul, harmonised vocals and brash lyrics fortified by squelchy funk.
The album closes with the powerful aforementioned “Go!” – recorded live this nearly ten-minute long epic puts domestic violence under the spotlight, of which Wright notes: “I made this record for those victims of abuse whose name won’t make the headlines, but whose pain is just as real.” When she pleads: “I can’t take this no more. I gotta go,” you can feel the pain.
Wright is one of the few “old school” soul singers who seems to have effortlessly crossed the generation divide, appealing to both young and old, fans and artists alike. Although the tempos never rise above head-nodding, she displays the versatility and scope of her voice that few can match, displaying a crooning style that is equal parts seasoning and seduction. Her appeal and delivery is timeless, and it’s this quality that has kept her at the top of her game for over four decades; long may it continue.
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.